tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS April 1, 2012 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: in the year 2003, her us army convoy was attacked while on its way to baghdad. she survived the ambush, but became the first black female prisoner of war in us history. iraq war veteran shoshana johnson. i'm maria hinojo. this is one on one. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org shoshana johnson, you were taken prisoner in iraq in the year 2003. you are actually the first black
female prisoner of war. and now you have written a book about that experience. it's called i'm still standing-- from captive us soldier to free citizen, my journey home. weome to our program. it's great to have you here. >> thank you. >> hinojosa: you decided to write this book, but you didn't have to write this book. >> no. >> hinojosa: you could have just put this chapter away. what was it that made you say, "you know what? i have to tell my story about being the first black woman prisoner of war"? >> well, there was so much out there, floating around, misconceptions about the experience and what happened to me. i just really wanted to set the record straight from my point of view. since the book has come out, i've come to the realization at no matter what i say, there's going to be people who believe what they want to believe. but i know that i have put the truth out there. >> hinojosa: you are basically raised in an army family. you're an immigrant from panama. >> yes. >> hinojosa: your dad joins the army, and he goes and he serves in the first gulf war.
>> yes, he did. >> hinojosa: and at that point you're a kid, and i remember in your book you wrote that what it was like to have your father away was just horrible. >> a lot of worry. i was my senior year in high school, and he missed most of it. and this was a point wre you're transitioning to be an adult, and you need that advice, and i'm worried if my father's going to come home, you know? >> hinojosa: and this is where i get stuck, because i'm like, if you went through that kind of worry, why would you ever want to join the army, knowing that there could be a time when you're going to be deployed, and when your family's going to be worried about you just the same? >> well, you know, you go through life and things happen. and that's one of the things my parents taught me-- you can't control every aspect of your life. you can just do what you can every day. i mean, there are people who go out the door in the morning going to their safe, normal job and die on the way there. so you just accept the risk of life and you live it the best way you can. the military was a great opportunity for me to further my education, and it is something
that i definitely believe in, serving your country. you know, freedom isn't free. as an immigrant to this country, i understand what it is to live here and what it is to live there. and the things i have open to me, the opportunities i have open to me, someone had to do that for me. and i want to do it for others. >> hinojosa: but did you... i mean, at that time when you were serving on the ground in iraq, it seems like in your book you were basically saying you weren't sure why you guys were being sent on the front lines to iraq. so when you say freedom isn't free, and we're here to, you know, create that, in what sense were you as a soldier at that point protecting me? or have you come to kind of question that? >> well, because it's not just a particular instance. it's the whole concept of the country, the government, and things like that. we elect certain people to make decision for us when it comes to politics.
and, you know, me standing as a specialist in the united states army saying, "i don't believe in this particular situation," is not going to change the whole government and just erase the political stuff that happens. so i knew that i would have to follow the orders that were given to me whether i liked them or not. and as an american citizen, a voting american citizen, i can make my voice be heard at another time. >> hinojosa: okay. you write about the fact tha the army had kind of sent you into this war zone without a lot of preparation. >> yeah, we... >> hinojosa: this is the us army, and you guys are being sent to fight on the front lines... well, you're a cook at that point. >> yes. >> hinojosa: so when you think about that, this is the us army, and they're sending someone-- well, many people-- who weren't really trained, didn't have the right equipment... >> it's frustrating, very
frustrating. as a cook, i'm trained in my job, but first i'm a soldier. i know how to fire my weapon, things like that. i wasn't trained in guerilla warfare or anything like that. that wasn't my job. of course, now, because of what happened to us, they are training every soldier a little differently. so what happened to me wasn't in vain. but it was sad to know that some of the equipment we had was failing us, and they didn't seem to be able to replace it, get it done in a quickly manner. i think this came to light actually a couple years later when they had a soldier sato donald rumsfeld, you know, "why don't we have great equipment?" and he said something like, "you go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish for." some comment like that, i remember. and i think at that point, that opened up a lot of people's eyes to what soldiers are dealing with in the united states army. things have gotten better, but
we aren't there yet. >> hinojosa: let's go back to 2003. so you still were kind of like, "all right, i'm going to kuwait, but i'm going to be the backup force." because you're a cook. >> mm-hmm, i'm support. >> hinojosa: you're support. and then they come in and say, "we're going on a convoy." >> yeah, "we're going to iraq." >> hinojosa: and you said, "yes, sir"? >> yeah. at first i was like, "huh? what are you talking about?" and they were like, "we're going to iraq." i said, "why?" i questioned it, i'm not going to lie. i was asking questions, "why are we going?" >> hinojosa: who did you ask? >> i asked my immediate supervisor, my nco. and he was like, "johnson, i don't know. we got the orders, we're going to iraq." >> hinojosa: so you can act... in that sense, you can say to your commanding officer, "why," and that's okay? >> well, not my commanding officer. it was my... you know, it was a little bit ways down. and... >> hinojosa: saying that to a commanding officer, maybe not so much.
>> yeah. and for captain king, i did ask. and, you know, of course, not the same way. i would be like, "you know, sir, what is the mission for us to be going into iraq?" "we're supporting, you know, patriot missiles," and this and that. and i was like, "okay, but aren't the mechanics going with them? why are we, the cooks, the supply clerks, going into..." "that's the orders we were given, this is the mission, this is what we have to do." and that's the answer. and that's not even a really good answer, but... >> hinojosa: you guys head off in a convoy. >> yes. >> hinojosa: of how many trucks? >> initially we were in a large convoy of, like, 600 vehicles long. >> hinojosa: oh, my gosh. and you were just driving though... is it really the way you describe it in the book? it's just complete desert? >> desert. >> hinojosa: for hours and hours and hours. >> and, i mean, if you get lost, you get turned around, y can't even tell which way is up. >> hinojosa: so how does it happen that if you're in a convoy of 600 cars-- trucks, right?-- that suddenly you guys
get lost? i mean, first of all you end up in an urban area. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and you started questioning. you were like, "what are we doing in this urban area," right? >> immediately. i was like, "this is so wrong." what happened is vehicles... it's a lot of sand. vehicles get caught, wheels turning, and it took a while to pull vehicles out of the sand. and the convoy keeps going, you know? they can stop for ten or 15 of us. and, you know, it keeps happening. we're actually, like, two days behind at this point. yeah. >> hinojosa: two days? >> yeah. it's like two days behind. >> hinojosa: so you're just, like, how many trucks on your own? >> it came down to, i would say, about 15 trucks, about 33, 34 people. >> hinojosa: i don't know. i would imagine that if you said, "look, there's just 15 trucks, we're kind of isolated, please wait for us" that they would say, "we're going to wait for you." because isn't it about, "we don't leave any soldier behind"? >> exactly. and that's the big problem we had. we were suosed to hit a checkpoint. and at the checkpoint, they
reconfirm the information you have, reconfirm which direction, which route you're going on. and when we got to the checkpoint there was no one there. they were gone. so they went with the information they had. >> hinojosa: and at that point in your book, you say that you basically are saying, "why are we doing this? this is a bad decision." but can you say that, as a soldier? >> not really. i mean, i had the discussion with a couple of the other soldiers around the same rank as myself. and i was like, "this feels wrong. something's not right. why are we..." and then we passed marines. the army never passes marines. i don't under... we passed some marines on the road. and i'm thinking, "wow. this is so wrong. i have a really bad feeling." but what are you going to do? >> hinojosa: then all of a sudden gunfire breaks out. >> yeah, after we enter the city. >> hinojosa: and you've never... >> i mean, we'd fired our weapon. i know what gunfire, you know,
going downrange... when gunfire is coming towards you, that's a different sound than you firing at something else. so it just sounds like rocks hitting a windshield. and it was very shocking. and hernandez and i were like, "oh, my god, they're firing at us." >> hinojosa: hernandez was in the vehicle with you? >> he was the driver. >> hinojosa: and at that moment suddenly things were happening, and you realize now that trucks have overturned, that your soldiers who you were with two seconds ago who were alive... >> are gone. >> hinojosa: are gone. and then you crawl underneath a truck. >> hojosa: yeah. we got out the vehicle, sergeant riley came up, and a couple of bullets went by really close. he was like, "take cover." we hit the ground. we take cover underneath the vehicle to return fire. the minute i hit ground to return fire, i get shot. and it's amazing, because riley ran a good 100 yards, bullets flying, not a scratch on him.
not a scratch on him. i didn't move two feet from my truck and i got shot. >> hinojosa: and you get shot in each leg? >> yes. >> hinojosa: once in each leg? >>t... from at ty understood it was one bullet hit both legs. >> hinojosa: so you're under attack, you're under fire. you get shot. and you're... and then your weapons are jamming, right? >> yes. we're having problems with the weapons. >> hinojosa: so you can't even return fire. and what are you thinking about at that moment? >> i'm... a lot of prayers. a lot of prayers. and i'm thinking, you know, "they're going to come get us. they're going to come and get us." and then, you know, realization that, no, we're surrounded. we can'to anything. and sergeant riley makes the decision, we have to surrender. and i'm thinking that's the last thing i want to do. but he's thinking he has two people, myself and hernandez, that he is responsible for. so he makes a decision.
>> hinojosa: which is kind of, you know... i'm sure in your mind at that time you're thinking, "you want to surrender to this enemy?" >> that's right. but he... you know, and looking back, i was like, "no, i don't want to surrender, i don't want to surrender." but i was thinng, "what's gointo hpen to me?" he's thinking, "i need to take care of them." >> hinojosa: because there really wasn't an out. i mean, either you were going to die, or you surrender. and if you surrender, you could die. >> yes. >> hinojosa: so you end up... at one point, very soon after, the iraqis who take you realize that you're a woman. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and they kind of... >> yeah, it was kind of in the middle of the beating, you know, my kevlar comes off, my braids come out, they realize i'm a female, and they stop. >> hinojosa: because at that point they're just... even though you're shot in both legs, and you're bleeding, they come up to you, and they're just basically... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...kicking your butt. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and you're taking this all. >> yeah. i mean, i don't have a choice. i... you know, you cover up, you
block your head, and that's about it. >> hinojosa: and then, what is the most revealing part? i mean, some of the things that you talk about in the book, about how you were treated by some of your iraqi captors, was really extraordinary. what was... talk a little bit about that, what was revealing to you about these people who were your enemy, and now you're their hostage. >> it's really seeing the human side of it. there's good and bad, you know? when i first got captured and i was separated from the men, i remember, you know, being groped. when i voiced a concern about being groped, i was slapped. but that was one individual. there was another time during my captivity where there was a gentleman that went out of his way to be kind to me. i think we need to stop looking at this group of people as just a group and start seeing individuals.
there is good and bad no matter where you go, no matter what religion, no matter what race, what sex. and we need to start judging each individual on their own personal actions. and that really... i mean, my parents always taught me that, but this was just... really opened my eyes to the situation. because that first instance where i was groped and slapped, i could have held a grudge against all the iraqi people, or all iraqi men. but i ve to remeer t kindness of that one man who, for all i know, was later injured for his kindness toward me, you know? i really have to think of individuals, not a group, you know? there are so many people that like to say, "those people, those muslims, those arabs." i'm like, "stop with the 'those people,'" because that's the same way that they refer to us, "those americans." >> hinojosa: "those bad
americans." >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: so you have bullet wounds iboth of yo leg >> yes. >> hinojosa: ripped tendons, broken bones, and you are being forced to walk. how did you do that, shoshana? i know that you're kind of like... but really, how do you in that moment deal with the fact that you are overwhelmed with pain? >> i wanted to live. i wanted to live. i thought that they would reach a point where they would get tired of carrying me. you know, and i couldn't be a burden. so when they started to push me to walk, i walked, because i wanted to live. i didn't want them to get tired, you know, and just put a bullet in my head. so it becomes just instinct. >> hinojosa: you were held for 21 days. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: and you kept on thinking that they were going to come, that they were going to come, but it took 21 days. >> yeah.
>> hinojosa: in that time, did you realize what was happening? you had no clue that the rest of the world was kind of watching. >> no, i didn't. didn't have a clue. very isolated. all i was nderinabout s going home to my family. you know, i wondered what happened to the rest of the company and my fellow pows, you know? >> hinojosa: what did you do to remain hopeful? i mean, how did you... >> hinojosa: it was hard. i went back and forth a lot, talking about, "this is it, today's the day i'm going to die." and then i would think, you know, "god brought me through the ambush for a reason. there's got to be a reason i'm still here." and i would think of my daughter. i would think of, "what am i going do when i get home?" you know, you really go through everything. "i want to see this movie, i want to lose five pounds." you try to go... because... just to keep you going. i can't sit here and think about what's going on outside that cell door every minute.
i'll go crazy. so i definitely thought of my life after. >> hinojosa: so there's a lot of talk about what happens when these soldiers are taken hostage. one of the other soldiers was jessica lynch. and you witnessed a little bit about what happened with jessica lynch's story. so talk to me a little bit about what the media sees, the story that is portrayed, and the reality, and how you feel about the fact that you're really in the crosshairs of that. >> it's difficult, you know? when we came home, lynch had already been rescued. we came home, and there were so many different stories about what happened, and things like that. and we're like, "none of this happened. where is this coming from?" of course, we got to talk to her before anybody else did. and she was at a loss, too, because she hadn't been allowed to speak to any reporters and stuff at that time. so i don't... we really didn't understand where these stories were coming from, how they were
blowing these things out of proportion. so it is eye-opening to be on the other end of things, not just as someone reading the paper, but as the story itself in the paper. >> hinojosa: did it make you angry? does that... >> it got me angry, because it wasn't the truth. there re other people involved, sergeant walters, patrick miller, who they attributed their actions to lynch. these two individuals acted very heroically, and they deserve credit for what they did. and lynch felt the same way. we all had a discussion about it. so we were eager to set the story straight, but then there was also the issue of we weren't allowed to talk to the press about it, because there was an investigation being done by the military. and while the investigation was ongoing, we weren't allod to
speak to the press. and that just fueled the fire, it seemed. >> hinojosa: and basically your understanding is that... the story out there in the media is that basically you guys messed up. >> yeah. that was another thing that... >> hinojosa: your unit had problems, you guys weren't up to par, you made mistakes, you made bad choices. >> yeah. it's amazing how they can put all the blame on these, what, 33 soldiers who had no control over that much of what was going . and then when it comes down to it, there are other people within the military that had the same problems. they had problems with their weapons. other people had issues, you know, with their gps and stuff going down, and their becoming lost. it happened all the time. we just happened to be caught in the ambush. and even parts of our battalion... you know, other units in our battalion had issues also. but that never was brought to the light.
they wanted to put all the blame on us and then walk away. >> hinojosa: so when you look at it right now... and i know that you believe th what you went through as a hostage is that it did serve a purpose. >> yes. >> hinojosa: but when you hear what's happening right now with the bigger push into afghanistan, and you see again in the newspaper the names of the soldiers... and this is not iraq now. this is an entirely different war. can you allow yourself to question why we're there, is this the right thing? can you do that? >> i will always question every military action-- is this the right one, will it get the job done, ll it costs tomany american lives? and i think that's my right as an american citizen to question that. but it's always heartbreaking to read more names being added to the list of people i know. >> hinojosa: do you think we can win this both in iraq and afghanistan? >> i don't know.
i don't know. because people seem to think that, you know, by military action is the way we win it. that's not necessarily true. this is an ideology, and you have tcomb ts onwo different fronts. you know, this is... some of these people are fighting for their religion. how do you fight... you know, how is just a basic military action going to combat that? i'm very passionate about my religion. i expect they're very passionate about theirs. so it is not just a military issue. it's very much a political issue, a social issue. >> hinojosa: you come back, and something... because the story, of course, doesn't end with your rescue, which was extraordinary, and so my of us wiesseit. i love the fact that you were always worried about your hair. it's like, "wait, i'm a pow, but how does the hair look? oh, my god, mom, how could they take..." i just... i love that humanity, because, like, you're a female soldier, but, you know, you're still worried about the hair. >> you know, i'm me, and at that
point i know i'm okay. you know, i know i'm okay. those marines had taken care of business. i was on my way home. so i really was able to just relax and think, "i'm going home. i can worry about normal stuff now, not whether i'm going to t a lletn thhead, or i'm going to be fed, or i'm going to be raped. i can worry about normal stuff." >> hinojosa: what was that rescue like? because you had been waiting, again, for 21 days. you were like, "they're coming, they're coming, they're coming. >> oh, i was a little anxious. i was like, you know, "where is the special forces?" i know they are capable of taking care of this situation. but it was incredible, incredible. the marines came breaking down the door, just like in the movies. and they just handled business. i had the opportunity have dinner a couple of days ago with e general who gave the order for our rescue. didn't call up to get permission from anybody at the top. >> hinojosa: really? >> no, he didn't. he got the information, and he
was like, "if i call up, they might want to delay and stuff, and we don't have time for that. let's do it." >> hinojosa: wow. >> yeah, he made an outstanding command decision to get it done, and i am very appreciative, because i don't know if we would have been there if they'd delayed. >> hinojosa: you really felt like they could have killed you at any moment. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: even though they were treating you nicely. >> treating us nicely,ut w were still in enemy hands. i mean, our guards still had weapons strapped to their hip and things like that. so... >> hinojosa: it was real. >> it was real, very much real. and we started to move from home, from prisons to homes. and to me that said, you know, the situation is changing. >> hinojosa: you end up coming back, and, you know, people would like to think that the story ends there, right? you're rescued, you come back, you're with your family, you're with your parents, you're with your daughter. and then you begin to realize that you're suffering from post-traumatic shock. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and what wathat realization like? like, "oh, my god, i thought i was fine, i'm free, but here i
am..." what, you were yelling at your family, you were fighting with everyone. what were some of the symptoms that you saw? >> my family really saw it first. i was... had a quick temper, i didn't sleep. sometimes if i did sleep i would pop out of my sleep. i mean, i'd jump out of bed. you know, certain times i would lose time-- i'd have a flashback and go back to the day of the ambush, and they're talking to me and can't catch my attention, and things like that. was. ani ke saying was fine-- "i'm fine, i'm fine." >> hinojosa: because soldiers aren't supsed to get post-traumatic stress disorder. >> exactly. i said, "after living through all of this, this isn't going to get me. i'm fine." and... >> hinojosa: and it kind of did get you. >> it did, it broke me down a little bit. and my parents came to me and said, "your daughter just came to us and said, 'mommy cries all the time.' when are you going to get some help?" and it... that's when it got me.
here i am affecting my, you know, two-year-old child. i'm supposed to be raising her, and i'm not capable of doing it. i have to get help. >> hinojosa: how hard is it for an american soldier to say, "i have post-traumatic shock and i need help"? >> it's very difficult. our motto was, "you suck it up and drive on." you have to accomplish the mission. to admit that you are broken... and not physically broken. we can accept physical limitations. but you're broken inside and you need help is very hard, is very hard. and there's a lot of stigma attached to it. but there is no shame. there should be no shame in admitting you need help. you did what you had to do for your job, for your country. saying you need help shouldn't be an issue. >> hinojosa: you actually are now out of the army. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and you are doing
what with your life? >> i am a culinary arts student, finishing up my dream, this part of my dream, and i shall be a pastry chef. i should graduate in sprinof 2011. so i'm happy. >> hinojosa: well, shoshana johnson, thank you for your story, thank you for your service, and we are so happy that you're alive. >> thank you very much. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone.